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Fate of UP parks now rests with voters

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Registered voters in the City of University Place will decide whether to form a junior taxing district to fund parks and parks programs rather than face deep cuts under the projected budget shortfalls in the city’s general fund. Cutting parks programs is estimated to save the city about $400,000 after the 2016 budget ends.

The council voted to announce the planned cuts because the city’s $18 million general fund is increasingly tightening with increasing public safety costs outpacing tax generation. A parks district had been explored since 2014 as budget forecasts showed a projected shortfall. The city also has about $40 million in debt associated with the Town Center development. Police services cost $4.5 million a year while debt service cost about $3 million.

The April 26 ballot will include two parks votes. One would regard the formation of the University Place Metropolitan Parks District that would have the authority to levy property taxes for parks programs. The second vote would be for the five parks board members themselves, who would make those taxing and program decisions if the formation is approved for the 8.4 square-mile city of 31,000 people.

The commission members will serve six-year terms. Eight people have mounted campaigns for the five positions. Candidates Scott Traynor, Paul Castello and Mary Schmidtke are running unopposed, while Vivian Foster, MariLeavitt and Dan Harkins vie for Position 3 while Joe Scorcio and Bob Jackson vie for Position 4.

The newly seated commissioners could vote to assess up to 75 cents per $1,000 in property value. That would mean about $187 more in property taxes for a $250,000 home, although district campaign backers have said the parks tax would likely be must lower than the state maximum.

Ballots have started arriving in the mail this week.

The citizen-initiative “Proposition 1” to form a parks district has been endorsed by University Place School District, West Pierce Fire Fighters IAFF, Local 1488; 28th District Representative Christine Kilduff, Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce, Tahoma Audubon Society, Chambers Creek Foundation, UP CARES Foundation and Salt Patrol - Fishing Charters.

The parks district would operate the same way that Metro Parks Tacoma runs parks and recreational programs in Tacoma, with its own parks commission, budget, staff and taxing authority.

If approved, the district would operate parks programs while the city would continue to maintain the 17 sites and facilities until both entities transfer, purchase or otherwise lease the assets through formal agreements at a later date.

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